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My Little Sister review – predictable but affecting sibling cancer drama

Nina Hoss gives a remarkable turn in this emotional but occasionally monotonous tale of a brother and sister facing tragedy

The mind-numbing beep of hospital machinery provides a rhythmically haunting soundtrack to Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s tender portrait of sibling connection My Little Sister. Its Berlin-born brother and sister are temporarily holed up in Switzerland, shielding from the wintry temperatures and hoping to wait out the oncoming storm of personal devastation. All the time, the film weathers sentimentality for a more outright focus on the personal repercussions of cancer.

Lisa (Nina Hoss) is an attentive mother, reliable sister and gifted playwright. Three identities that she struggles to balance as her twin brother Sven’s (Lars Eidinger) leukaemia worsens. She’s willing to drop everything to fight on his behalf, much to the frustration of her husband Martin (Jens Albinus). He has been offered a lucrative teaching job at a renowned Swiss boarding school and is not as willing to shelve his ambition for Sven’s sake.

With Lisa and Martin’s marriage on the rocks, Chuat and Reymond’s roaming camera shoots their fiery disagreements with the same adrenaline-fueled intensity as flying down the jagged Swiss slopes. This naturalistic portrait of family desperation, however, features one too many moments that resonate at an unchanging emotional frequency. The film is lumbered with placid pacing and often fails to move beyond a monotone energy. Subtlety may offer a sidestep from cliché, but that doesn’t override the duller dynamics that temper an otherwise stirring scene.

At the emotional centre of this pensive script is Sven’s grief for the life that is slowly slipping away from him. It is as though he is preparing the avalanche of his own demise and My Little Sister is all the more devastating for it. Once a celebrated gay actor whose work onstage sold out on a nightly basis, Sven now gets his joy for life from a diverse array of colourful wigs. His “little sister” (by two minutes) steps up to the responsibility of caring for him, a weight that is initially hard to bear, as the twins’ mother Kathy (Marthe Keller, whose comedic sensibilities lighten the mood) and her well-intentioned fussing only aggravates them both.

While the narrative is spurred by Eidinger’s Sven, Nina Hoss is the captain of this ship. Her remarkable performance makes pivotal moments excruciating to sit through, a sheer landslide of emotion pouring from her trained expression. Ultimately, My Little Sister is an actor's piece, a showcase for Hoss and Eidinger’s sublime prowess in roles of character-focused emotional stature.

My Little Sister opens in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 8 October.

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